Incumbent city council member Lorena Gonzalez may have only been on the council for two years, but she has already made her mark as head of the council’s public safety and gender equity committee, which has spent the past five years, give or take, overseeing the implementation of police reforms in the city. (In 2012, the US Department of Justice ordered the Seattle Police Department to implement reforms to curb excessive force and racially biased policing, and a US district judge has refused to release the city from the consent decree until he is satisfied that the city is in compliance). Gonzalez, a civil rights attorney who was Mayor Ed Murray’s chief counsel before running for council in 2015, was the first council member to call on Murray to resign after the Seattle Times reported on records related to the sex-abuse case against him in Oregon, where a child-welfare investigator concluded that Murray had sexually abused his foster son in 1984.
I sat down with Gonzalez late last month at Uptown Espresso in West Seattle.
The C Is For Crank [ECB]: You were first council member to call for Murray to step down. How do you feel about that decision now?
LG: I feel as strongly today as I did then about needing to take a very strong moral position that the mayor should step down. It was hard for me to realize that I would be standing alone on that for quite some time, and I’m okay with that, because it was the right thing to do. I will always choose the side of survivors, and so if I could go back, I would do it all again.
ECB: I assume it’s damaged your relationship with the 7th floor.
LG: (Laughs.) I think I have had the great benefit of having really strong relationships with a lot of the mayor’s staff because they’re former coworkers and colleagues of mine, and I continue to work collaboratively with a lot of my former colleagues on the 7th floor to get done what we need to finish getting done. That being said, the mayor and I have not personally communicated since my announcement.
ECB: That must be hard, since you worked with him so closely in the past.
LG: This whole thing is hard because of that. He’s somebody that I respected. He’s somebody that I trusted. He’s somebody who motivated me enough to leave a ten-year-long career doing civil rights work and sexual survivor advocacy work that I really fundamentally believed in and loved. And personally, it was difficult for me to process and accept that the what I saw in the investigation file from Oregon was true. So that was very personally difficult to reconcile all that.
ECB: The city has made progress on police reform, but there are still gaps and calls for reform. What additional efforts would you like to see on police accountability and reform?
LG: I actually think we have made significant strides, but that doesn’t mean that we are close to being there yet, whatever ‘there’ is. The reality is that the [police accountability] ordinance that I sponsored, that was approved by unanimously by the council in May of 2017, hasn’t been implemented yet. And it hasn’t been implemented yet because we haven’t been able to convince the federal court to allow us to move forward with the ordinance, and part of that is because [federal district judge James Robart] has legitimate concerns around the powers that our police union holds in the collective bargaining process. And until we are able to convince the judge that we are willing to prioritize constitutional policing above all else, even in the collective bargaining process, then we will continue to be in a place where this ordinance is in limbo and where some of the huge significant policy changes that are reflected in the ordinance won’t be implemented until we convince the judge that we’re willing to hold the line.
“I feel as strongly today as I did then about needing to take a very strong moral position that the mayor should step down. It was hard for me to realize that I would be standing alone on that for quite some time, and I’m okay with that, because it was the right thing to do. I will always choose the side of survivors, and so if I could go back, I would do it all again.”
ECB: Some reform proponents have suggested that police union negotiations be held in public. Why do you oppose that idea?
LG: I think that that’s a fundamentally anti-labor position. The reality is that the state really does dictate what the rules are around collective bargaining, and we as a city are beholden to those rules. I think what we have historically seen in the city of Seattle is that our agreed-upon system of accountability and discipline has historically been eroded in the collective bargaining process. So I think for me, what is more important is how do we engage in collective bargaining with unions where we make sure that there is no backsliding on the intent and purpose that we’re trying to accomplish through our legislation.
Something that I think could be incredibly powerful in that context, that has been suggested by people like retired judge Anne Levinson, is the idea of having a special monitor in the labor negotiation processes that would just be focused on tracking whether or not the proposed parameters or a final tentative labor agreement have caused some backsliding on what the actual intent and purpose is, as reflected in the police accountability legislation. I think that level of technical assistance provides more real information about whether or not there’s backsliding than just allowing sort of people who might not understand the intricacies of these policies to speculate as to whether or not they’re working.
ECB: Would part of the aim of creating a monitor position be to satisfy the objections of people who want to give the CPC more authority over things like hiring and firing the police chief and instigating investigations?
LG: I think we’ve empowered the Community Police Commission to the extent that they want to be empowered. The CPC did not ask for a system that doesn’t look like what it looks like now. They asked to have the role that they currently have in this version of the ordinance. They did not ask for the power to fire the chief. They did not ask for the ability to discipline or do individual investigations. And they fundamentally wanted to stay focused on, how can we create a table of community leaders and members who would have the power and ability to do systemic review and make fundamental recommendations to change those systems if the system becomes unhealthy. And that’s what they decided as a democratic body to advocate for in this legislation, and that’s what’s reflected in the legislation.
ECB: Given that we’ll have a new mayor next year, I wondered if there’s any part of HALA that you would want to revisit once Murray is out of office.
LG: I’d like to spend more time thinking about displacement tools. A lot of times, people think the mandatory housing affordability program is an anti-displacement tool, but in reality, it really is designed to increase the stock of affordable housing for people of a certain income. It’s not the very low or extremely low-income folks. And so I do think there’s an opportunity for city council to really step into the anti-displacement arena.
“The CPC did not ask for a system that doesn’t look like what it looks like now. They asked to have the role that they currently have in this version of the ordinance. They did not ask for the power to fire the chief. They did not ask for the ability to discipline or do individual investigations.”
I continue to be really interested in having the conversations around opening up more of our single-family zones to multifamily housing. And it’s obviously a very delicate conversation to have, and it’s delicate for a variety of reasons. But just because it’s a tough conversation doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have it. And we should explore best practices in terms of how we can best engage the community and how we can pilot at least a version of what I think there is interest in doing.
ECB: Given how controversial the mandatory housing affordability (MHA) program was at first, it’s been interesting to watch the council pass every upzone unanimously.
LG: But it’s because it’s in urban villages.
ECB: Right—the problem is that we have single-family zones where you can’t even build a duplex. Were you disappointed when Murray pulled back on opening up single-family zones to more types of development so quickly?
LG: I think it’s fair to say that I wish we could have had more of an opportunity to really see how the conversation could have unfolded. These conversations are really tough, right, because we’re talking about fundamentally changing parts of the city that have never had to change, so I think we could have potentially benefited from allowing the city and its residents more time to have that public conversation.
ECB: How do you think the mayor’s navigation teams have been performing, in terms of getting people in tents into safer shelter as well as into permanent housing?
LG: I think it’s better than what we had before. I will say that I share concerns about having the Office for Civil Rights being effectively the auditor of how that outreach is occurring around the encampment conversation as a whole, which is where these navigation teams are being used primarily. The Office for Civil Rights has an inherent conflict because they are a department of the executive and it’s a very small office, and I just don’t know how a small office like that could reconcile that conflict of interest and be a true independent auditor.
ECB: How would you resolve that conflict?
LG: I think that the Office for Civil Rights should be its own independent office that has stand-alone authority, similar to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission and hopefully someday soon similar to the Community Police Commission, or to shift that work to the city auditor’s office. I’m not sure that there is any other way to ensure that that work isn’t being unduly influenced by the political will of the executive.
“I think that impounding somebody’s vehicle as a result of unpaid fines and tickets is not helping our homelessness situation.”
ECB: Mike O’Brien has proposed creating a new program where people living in cars and RVs could get immunity from tickets in exchange for accepting services. Is that approach something you’ll support?
LG: Council member O’Brien’s approach is one that makes some sense to me in terms of requiring people to sign up to be part of this registration program. And that would allow outreach workers to know exactly where you’re at, and it also requires you as a person who’s camping to commit to be engaged in service efforts. So I think that that component of give and take is an important one, and it imposes a responsibility on campers that doesn’t currently exist.
I think that impounding somebody’s vehicle as a result of unpaid fines and tickets is not helping our homelessness situation. That, to me, is not a harm reduction approach to the situation. The only thing that we gain by continuing to tack on legal fees that lead to an impoundment is moving people from camping in cars to camping outside and I don’t think that that’s what any of us want. I think the big, tough question will be, how do we administer it? How do we fund this program? And at this point we don’t know what the funding would be. And is that how we should be using our funds in the context of also shifting towards upping our investments in permanent supportive housing?
ECB: When the Poppe Report on homelessness came out and the city started moving away from transitional housing in favor of a rapid rehousing approach, you expressed concern that domestic violence victims and others who currently use transitional housing might be shut out in the new housing-voucher-based system. Do you still have those concerns?
LG: I will continue to track that particular issue. I had heard from the Human Services Department that that is a question of prioritization of the funds and have been assured that those individuals—families and survivors—are at the top of the priority list, as some of the most vulnerable populations within a vulnerable population.
ECB: How did you feel when the Seattle Times endorsed your opponent, Pat Murakami?
LG: Oh gosh—it was really disappointing to me, and on a professional level, it felt more like a referendum on the entire city council, on the work that we have been doing over the last two years. And I accept the fact that I am the only incumbent running for reelection in the city government besides the city attorney, but it really just felt like there was an unloading of sorts that needed to happen, and I was going to be the person who was going got be on the receiving end of that. I think it’s unfortunate, because I do believe that the city is moving in the right direction, and I think that that is in part because of the leadership that the city council has provide over the last two years. I think that, at the end of the day, my primary election results show that people are still happy with the work that I’m doing on the city council and with the direction of the city.
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